Foreign Aid for Scoundrels

Orban Thierry/Sipa Press
Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, center, with his wife Chantal Biya at a Bastille Day parade on the Champs Elysées, Paris, July 14, 2010

I was in a New York bar recently with a group of African intellectuals. To my surprise, I was sitting next to a democratic opposition leader whom I have long admired. He had been elected to a major office in his home country, but then the country’s leader sentenced him to life in prison. He eventually got out and left Africa, but he is still so fearful of the security forces of the autocrat that he asked me not to use his name or even his country’s name.

This opposition leader said one thing that will always stay with me. While he was in jail, he read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs.1 He found these words in the acknowledgments:

My work in Africa has been blessed by help and guidance from a large number of colleagues and African leaders…. In particular I would like to thank Africa’s new generation of democratic leaders who are pointing the way, including….

One of those Sachs included was the opposition leader’s jailer. He pleaded with me to communicate to Western audiences that Africans have the same standards for democracy as they do—not a double standard by which the prison warden of members of the opposition could be one of a “new generation of democratic leaders.”

The international aid system has a dirty secret. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, the nations and organizations that donate and distribute aid do not care much about democracy and they still actively support dictators. The conventional narrative is that donors supported dictators only during the cold war and ever since have promoted democracy. This is wrong.

Certainly there has been far more talk among aid donors about “good governance” since the end of the cold war. During the cold war there was a taboo on discussing the politics of aid recipients such as Joseph Mobutu of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic. Now the World Bank states forthrightly on its website: “Aid is less effective in a weak governance environment.”2 It also includes a measure of “voice and accountability” in its widely used “governance indicators” that it has produced since 1996.3 The US government aid agency USAID declares its aims to be “promoting sustainable democracy” and “expanding the global community of democracies.”4

Even this rhetoric seems to disappear when aid is explicitly under discussion. An important aid event, the recent UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in New York, was telling in this respect. UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg gave a speech to the summit in which he did not mention democracy; yet two days later, speaking to the UN General…

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